Touring Auschwitz

Article excerpt

You don't take the train to Auschwitz, anymore. Mercifully, it makes more sense to travel by bus. It's quicker (only an hour and 40 minutes from Cracow) and a quarter of the price (eight zloty, or about two dollars). For sure, the roads aren't so great -- but even 50 years after the Shoah, traveling to the most infamous extermination camp over railroad tracks might be too virtual a method of conveyance.

"Dark Tourism" is the term scholars have come up with to describe the popular visitations by reverential pilgrims, ghoulish sightseers, innocent school groups, and curious backpackers to sites and memorials of absolute barbarism. Visiting the Polish State Museum in Oswiecim, covering the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, is perhaps the ultimate in Dark Tourism. It's especially dark if you do it, as I did recently, solo, and on a cold and drizzly winter day.

Oswiecim (pronounced osh-vyen'-tseem) is the authentic Polish name of the town that, for the rest of the world, has become synonymous with ultimate atrocity. Auschwitz was its wartime German name just as Birkenau ("Birchwood"), a mile-and-a-half from the town itself, is the Teutonic version of the tongue-twisting village of Brzezinka. Today, the good citizens of Oswiecim -- an otherwise ordinary community of 50,000 inhabitants, 33 miles west of Cracow -- are just as happy that in global parlance it is the German name that has stuck. Imagine striking up a conversation with a stranger and, in response to the typical traveler-meets-traveler query "Where are you from?" are met with, "I'm from Auschwitz. Where are you from?" No, those Poles who happen to have been born where mankind demonstrated its full potential for technologically sophisticated genocide escape the stigma of forever hailing from Auschwitz. Their postal address bears the zip code for obscure Oswiecim, not the indelible stamp of Cain's 20th-century cave.

The bus from Cracow (take the Bosacka line) leaves you at the entrance gate to the main museum, across the street from the town's bus depot. It is always open from eight, the Auschwitz Museum, but depending on the season closes any time between three and seven o'clock. There is no entrance fee, and the museum is open every day of the year except for Christmas, New Year's Day, and -- curious, no? -- Easter Sunday. You can hire a private guide upon arrival but, as per the museum guide book, "no guide service is provided in days when mass-manifestations announced by the radio and press take place."

Auschwitz proper comes as an architectural surprise. Originally built in the 19th century as sturdy barracks for soldiers of the Polish army, it is compact and dense, more reminiscent of a small village than a sprawling camp. In 1940, not long after Nazi occupation, it was renovated and converted into a prison for Polish political prisoners. By 1942, KL Auschwitz I comprised 28 two-floor red brick houses for the detainees. The buildings at Auschwitz's main camp, around whose outside perimeter is still strung a high fence of barbed wire, are strong, imposing, crushing. Today they contain two kinds of exhibits: the general exhibition ("Everyday Life of the Prisoner"; "Living and Sanitary Conditions"; "Extermination," etc.) and the national exhibitions (those of ten European countries plus "Suffering and Struggle of the Jews"). At one time, these few dozen buildings housed 20,000 inmates -- young and old, men and women -- hundreds of whose framed pictures, captioned with names and (brief) period of pre-death detention, hang along the corridor walls in general exhibition rooms. In the punishment cellars of the Death Block, where four prisoners used to be crammed into a single square yard "standing cell," a few steps away from me a teenaged girl of the MTV generation -- pierced body parts, shocking tuff of dyed blond hair -- is weeping. For all its disproportionate evil, Auschwitz I is a compact, almost busy, site of misery.

Not so the sprawling, ghost-like extermination site of KL Auschwitz II -- Birkenau. …